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The art of the egg: Ukrainian Easter Eggs are works of art

Morton said the best eggs to use for Ukrainian Easter Eggs are farm eggs because the shells are harder and easier to work on.

BEMIDJI — The ancient Romans coined a proverb: “Omne vivum ex ovo,” which translates to “All life comes from an egg.”

The ancient Greeks buried eggs in their tombs.

In Christianity, the early church in Byzantium taught that the brightly decorated and colored eggs were the tears that Mary shed at Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the lore of Easter, the Saxon goddess Esotre found an injured bird and transformed it into a hare that could lay eggs, which were subsequently given to the goddess who helped the bird survive the winter.

But what about decorating the eggs? In fact, eggs were once used as birth certificates? In the 1800s in parts of Germany, an egg inscribed with the infant’s birth date, name and probably those of parents was accepted as legal proof or birth certificate.

Throughout the years, many Western civilizations used decorated eggs and other symbols to represent various stages of life, such as birth, good health and even death.

And the decorating of eggs has become an art form unto itself. The most stylized being Ukrainian Easter Eggs, also known as Pysanky.

A good representation of the art form is at Gallery North, where there is a display by artist Mary Morton.

Morton and her sister, Joy, took a class in the Ukrainian egg painting around 1975 and Mary has not stopped since, producing original and colorful eggs, Rosemaling and Celtic knot work as homage to her Irish heritage.

“My favorite legend, which I tell everybody,” Morton said. “In the Ukraine there is an evil monster chained to the mountain, and every spring he sends out his little gremlins to check and see if there is lots of beauty in the world, and if they come back and say ‘no’ then the chain loosens. If they say ‘yes’ then the chain stays tight and he stays chained to the mountain.’ We don’t want evil to flow throughout the world so we make lots of pretty eggs.”

The drawings on the egg are very small and take a skilled hand with the kistka (writing tool), used with melted beeswax to draw patterns. The colors are worked from light to dark so the artist must choose and always be mindful of the pattern that is emerging. Once the pattern and beeswax egg is finished, the artist then removes the wax from the egg to display the different colors and patterns. It interesting to note that the usual blue, green and yellow with a black background is being replaced slowly by more modern colors like turquoise. There is even a new design by Morton, which represents Trypillian artifacts using only brick, black and brown in a paisley pattern.   Morton uses raw eggs that she has already carefully candled to detect fine defects; the best eggs are farm eggs because the shells are harder. She doesn’t want eggs with soft spots. Then she immerses the eggs in a vinegar/water solution to open the pores on the shells and hopefully a good surface to write upon but Morton does admit that sometimes there are happy mistakes (soft spots) that look very nice. The eggs must be room temperature when beginning the process.

“In the old country, the women would take one whole day to make enough eggs to last a year because eggs are not used for Easter alone: the birth of children requires a light colored egg with enough white space to add to the pattern as they grow or a clean slate to be written upon.  Eggs were given for a wedding and special occasion gifts throughout the year. The farmers put an egg over the door of the home and barn to protect the livestock and family. A black and white egg is usually given to an older person and the pattern symbolizes “a life well lived” and the gates to heaven. That egg is then put into the coffin of the person and buried along with them.”

Whatever the season, eggs have been a universal sign of new life and new beginnings coming from the earth in the spring: muddy and dank; hopeless until the first green leaves emerge and the promise of new life is renewed.